For Matisyahu, no beard, no entry

Since Matisyahu shaved his beard last year, the former Chasidic reggae musician has been suffering all sorts of blowback. Along with losing his facial hair, sidelocks and the love of some Jewish fans, apparently he’s lost his VIP status in the eyes of club bouncers, too.

At the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, over the weekend, Matisyahu stood outside the TAO nightclub for some 10 minutes unable to get in because the door managers had no idea who he was, according to the New York Post. He finally gained access to the club from a friend who recognized him. Had he shown up in the black hat and coat, and straggly white beard he once wore, the bouncers surely would have dug his outfit and ushered him in.

Catching up with Matisyahu (and his beard)

Like many artists, Matisyahu resists personal praise. Instead, the 32-year-old singer saves it for others — and his music. He described Youssoupha Sidibe, a musician he performs with, as “a very spiritual being … a very incredible musician,” and said their music was “next level” in a Tweet that linked to a recording of their recent jam.

In his shows, the musicians’ improvisational collaboration often features impromptu chanting over loose electric guitar. But Matisyahu’s forthcoming studio album, “Spark Seeker,” which will come out this summer, will be a slick effort, emphasizing studio wizardry over live spontaneity. 

“The music I’m going to be releasing, the record that is coming up, is a totally different feel,” Matisyahu said during an interview last week in advance of his appearance at American Jewish University’s Brandeis-Bardin Campus on March 10. The new album follows “Light,” his 2009 release that featured what may be his best-known track, “One Day.”

Fans criticized “Light” for relying too much on hip-hop beats. Asked if he thought the critiques were fair, Matisyahu gave an unexpected reply.

“To me, ‘beat-heavy’ is a compliment,” he said. So while he wasn’t specific about the sound of the next album, one assumes it will continue the departure from the reggae sound of “Shake Off the Dust … Arise” (2004) and “Youth” (2006), his first two albums.

Despite talk about the novelty of Matisyahu in the mainstream music scene — and how different he is from the typical Jew — he’s extremely personable, even normal, in conversation. At times, he’s confident. Other times, he’s insecure. His album “Live at Stubbs” is beloved, but, he said, “I cringe when I listen to a lot of that record.”

Like any other celebrity whose actions and statements are scrutinized, Matisyahu doesn’t hide his frustration with the media. Raised as a Reconstructionist Jew on the East Coast, he dropped out of high school and got involved with drugs before learning about Orthodox Judaism on a trip to Israel. In his mid-20s, he exploded on the music scene as a Chasidic beat-boxing, reggae-singing superhero. He performed wearing a long beard and peyos, then shed the Orthodox garb for street clothes. While the change of wardrobe led people to question the sincerity of his observance, nothing came close to his decision last December to shave off both his beard and peyos. The move brought on a firestorm of anger, admiration and also confusion from fans, journalists and bloggers. And it caused him to be portrayed in the media in off-putting ways, he said.

“It’s so ridiculous to me, the whole thing,” Matisyahu said on the phone from Lake Tahoe, where he performed on Feb. 22. In interviews after he shaved, he explained that he’d been afraid to shave. Some had told him that a beard attracts God’s blessings and that by cutting his beard, he would be cutting off those blessings. If the fear sounds strange, consider that Orthodox Judaism gave the singer his identity and sense of self.

Once he built up the courage to shave, he came to believe that it would be his worthy behavior, not his beard, that will bring him God’s blessings.

“I went through a lot of changes and a lot of growth,” he said. “A lot of that has been … internal;  it’s been very much kind of like an inner thing.”

The beard, the evolving sound of his music — if nothing else, the last decade with Matisyahu has been interesting. No one denies that he’s a powerhouse live act.

“King Without a Crown” and “Jerusalem” are now eight years old, but the songs still enrapture audiences at his shows.

Visit for more information on the March 10 performance.

On Matisyahu’s beard

On Tuesday, December 13, Chassidic reggae-star Matisyahu Tweeted:

This morning I posted a photo of myself on Twitter. No more Chassidic reggae superstar.  Sorry folks, all you get is me…no alias. When I started becoming religious 10 years ago it was a very natural and organic process. It was my choice.…. At a certain point I felt the need to submit to a higher level of religiosity…to move away from my intuition and to accept an ultimate truth. I felt that in order to become a good person I needed rules—lots of them—or else I would somehow fall apart. I am reclaiming myself. Trusting my goodness and my divine mission…. Matisyahu.

In a subsequent interview with WNYC radio, the Grammy-nominated singer explained that he remains observant but underwent a transformation.  He kept the long beard, he said, out of fear that removing it would result in being denied God’s mercy.  He overcame that fear and no longer needs facial hair.

As one who appreciated his music and loved his message, the tweet gave me pause.  It brought me back to the day that I, too, shaved my beard.

I grew a beard when I was 21 years old.  A fledgling rabbinical student with a pronounced speech impediment, I had just finished the most depressing year of my life.  The intensive speech therapy program I had engaged in was failing, and the yeshiva I attended beheld a culture I could not embrace. It was time for a new beginning.  I was going to Israel to attend the renowned and revered Mir Yeshiva.  Throughout my darkest moments, I craved – and felt – a special relationship with God.  But within that relationship it was time for renewal, time for a new tempo to the song of my life.   

My flight to Israel was scheduled for late summer.  “The Three Weeks,” a time when Orthodox Jewish men don’t shave to express mourning for the destruction of the Temples, fell a few weeks before my departure.  Already adorned by red stubble, I chose to not shave and let it grow into a red beard.

Life is replete with symbols.  The clothes we wear, the company we keep and the haircut we sport, express the person we are and the person we want to be.  Teenage boys wearing hair combed towards their forehead appreciate this, as do scientists sporting unkempt hair and shaggy sweaters.  I did, too.  The beard – the male expression of maturity – defined my commitment, devotion and determination to connect with God anew.  It was a new look and a new beginning. 

I kept the beard for two years, throughout my stay in Israel.  By then I felt much better inside and outside.  I met people who were both good and Godly, my studies were progressing, and I found friends who understood me and rabbis whom I understood.  Just before I came home to the States, the Remington came out and the beard came off. 

I kept the beard off for three years.  Then I met my soul-mate, married and chose a career in the field of Jewish education and outreach.  One month after our wedding was sefira, when Jewish men don’t shave to commemorate the loss of the academy of Rabbi Akiva to plague, in 150 CE.  The beard grew, again.  And it has been on ever since.

I feel comfortable with it because it was added as an expression of Jewish pride, not as a response to weakness.  Judaism is my life.  And I don’t intend to remove it.

Matisyahu remains an observant Jew and, even more, a keeper of the beard does not make one a keeper of the faith.  But it would be remiss to ignore that it was the beard which made Matisyahu a sensation.  The removal of the beard occurred because Matisyahu no longer saw in it the symbolism that the media and his fans saw in it.  A clean shaven white guy doing reggae, no matter how clever and talented, would not have made it to the Jimmy Kimmel Show.

The world knows that the Orthodox Jew speaks to mankind.  The wise, sagacious rabbi envisioned by our greatest admirers is bearded, as is the evil world-dominating caricature concocted by Anti-Semites.

What does the Orthodox Jew say to the world?  He says that God is infinitely engaged in creation.  He says that God calls mankind to self regulation, to commit to absolute values, to break the idol worship of self and to build and dignify the institution of other.  He speaks of the deep richness of the Godly and the fleeting pleasures of the worldly, imploring mankind to choose spiritual fine wine over material candy. He says that the battle between good and evil exists and persists at all times, in the world and within our lives.  And he proclaims that ultimately our good deeds will usher in a Messianic era when all mankind will recognize God as Creator and loving Father. 

Orthodox Jews know the message, yet, it was the medium of Matisyahu that brought it to the masses.  I will miss Matisyahu’s beard.  And pray that others – with beards – learn to express, as Matisyahu did, a craving for the Divine, absolute values that are sublime, to help turn the tide for a great nation in moral decline.

The author of two books, Yaakov Rosenblatt “tends the flock,” literally and figuratively, as CEO of A.D. Rosenblatt Kosher Meats, LLC and a rabbi at NCSY – Southwest region

Apres le beard: Matisyahu takes the stage in Boulder

When Matisyahu, the 32-year-old Chasidic reggae superstar, appeared onstage for the first time since shaving his trademark beard, no one in the audience at the Boulder Theater seemed surprised.

The news of his shaving had been widely discussed since the star tweeted a photo of himself, along with a brief explanation for his cosmetic and philosophical changes. Though he was now missing the aesthetic hallmarks of Chasidic Jewry, he still wore a yarmulke—a large, black-knitted version—and his tzitzit hung out from under his plain white T-shirt. He also wore baggy khaki pants that sagged off of his slim, vegan-fed frame, a long black jacket and dark sunglasses.

Without the camouflage of his beard and peyes, his face was noticeably angular, gaunt even. His features looked delicate and feminine under the multicolor stage lighting. 

The sold-out crowd didn’t seem to care, roaring with approval as he stood in front of the mike.

Yet some concert-goers expressed concern before the start of the show as to the viability of Matisyahu’s career without his signature look.

“I think it’s the beginning of the end of Matisyahu,” said Donny Basch, who was attending the Dec. 15 show with his wife. “If you’re going to see KISS and Gene Simmons comes out without makeup, I’d be really pissed.”

Others were more interested to see if any changes would result from his altered appearance.

“I’m curious to see how his concert today compares to the show in Philly,” said one woman, referring to a show she had attended several years prior that had a mix of Modern Orthodox and secular folks in the audience. “I thought it was a fun show, but mostly due to the mystique of a Chasid rapping and doing reggae.”

“I’m very interested in him and what his shift is philosophically,” Deborah Skovrom, a middle-aged woman, said of the singer’s new look and the deeper changes it might signify. “It’s a major shift in how he wants to be perceived.”

Yet she expected no changes in what perhaps matters most to fans—his music.

“His music and message is still right on,” Skovrom said.

Story continues after the jump.

Calvin Carter spoke even more emphatically in defense of Matisyahu’s choice to shave off his beard.

“He’s got the right to do that without people saying he gave up his faith,” Carter said. To him, the music is the point—“as long as the brother is spreading good cheer and good music.”

Carter was one of several stereotypical reggae fans in attendance—guys with long dreads and colorful knit Rasta hats. Most of the crowd, however, ranged in age from high schoolers to baby boomers and were white. Many seemed to have stepped off the pages of a J. Crew catalog.

Newly shorn and wearing his Gap-esque clothing, Matisyahu looked more like his fans than he ever has before. He danced jerkily across the stage. Many in the audience followed suit, yet few reached down to pick up their fallen yarmulkes as the singer did several times throughout the night.

Addressing the audience briefly after a few songs, Matisyahu spoke in unaccented American English without any hint of the patois he adopts when he busts into reggae and dancehall, and none of the “oys” and Ashkenazi pronunciations he sprinkles throughout his songs—especially those that are extra heavy on Jewish and messianic themes. In those brief moments he was simply Matt Miller.

And some people seem to like it that way.

“I think it’s kind of sexy,” said one Jewish woman of Matisyahu’s new look. “With the beard he looks like every other Chasidic Jew.”

It’s an interesting observation—to Jews, looking like a Chasid makes you look like every other Orthodox Jew. It makes you seem like you’re part of a black-and-white-clad monolith. But on the stage of popular music, the beard—not the neatly shorn scruff favored by Brooklynites but a long, full beard—makes one stand out. Some may even argue that it helped launched Matisyahu’s career.

He covered many of his most popular songs—“Jerusalem” and the seasonally appropriate “Miracle”—yet the evening’s highlight was the final song (before the encore set), “One Day.” The song had been used as the official anthem of the 2010 Winter Olympics due to its utopian message.

During his performance, Matisyahu was joined on stage by more than two dozen teens from the audience. A couple of the girls embraced him, clearly unaware of—or undeterred by—Orthodox Judaism’s prohibition against touching between the sexes. Though he did not brush them off, he seemed to momentarily stiffen. His beard may be gone but his fidelity toward Jewish law remains.

“I’ve seen him several times and this is the best I’ve ever seen him,” said Jonathan Lev, the executive director of the Boulder JCC.

Whether his performance quality had anything to do with his new look is hard to say (especially since this reporter had never seen him live). In the blog post he had penned to accompany the photos, he said, “Sorry folks, all you get is me … no alias.”

For the fans who lined up outside the theater, crowded around the stage and sang along with him, that seemed to be more than enough.

‘Rabbi, Matisyahu shaved off his beard! Should I shave off mine?’

As if the Jewish world doesn’t have enough problems with Iran on the brink of starting a nuclear war and the radical Muslim Brotherhood making gains in Egypt’s phased elections.

This week we were rocked by another close shave with disaster: “Chasidic reggae superstar” Matisyahu got rid of his facial hair!

Full disclosure: Matis is a friend and I’m a fan. However, I always feared the label “Chassidis reggae superstar” was a heavy burden for someone who became so “frum so fast.” It seems that the beard became a symbol of that burden to Matis, and he felt he had to do something drastic to free himself from other people’s expectations and demands.

I can’t begin to imagine the pressure of being the most famous bearded Jew on the planet. Let’s be honest: Do people in Japan re and ally know (or sadly care) who the chief rabbi of Israel is? You’d better believe, however, that they know who Matisyahu is, especially if they’ve seen him live in concert.

I’ll admit that I’m taking Matisyahu’s decision to go clean shaven a bit personally. Having such a prominent Jewish celebrity embrace the beautiful dictum of letting the hair on the face grow made me look cool, too, and allowed me to relate better to my students. (At least that’s what I told myself.) But herein lies the root (pun intended) of the problem. I for one am guilty at times of using his success to encourage other young people to become more involved in their faith. My intentions were always pure, but there is always a danger that we’ll mix up the message with the messenger.

In a world where pop culture is so ubiquitous and real life can feel sometimes like a struggle, we can start to live vicariously through celebrities, making them into idols.

I received a call from a young man distraught that his musical and spiritual hero Matisyahu had shaved off his beard. The young man actually asked me if he should follow suit. I gently told him he needed to learn more Torah and then decide, adding that I’d be happy to learn along with him. Yet the truth is, anyone who grows a beard because a “Chasidic reggae superstar” has one probably wasn’t mature enough to grow one in the first place even if they were able.

We place too much of our own hopes and dreams into the hands of Jewish celebrities. Take the sporting arena: What happens when your favorite kosher-eating, kipah-wearing “Chasidic celebrity boxer’ loses a bout? Do you suddenly stop wearing a kipah and keeping Shabbat?

I’m certainly not an A-list star in the constellation of “Chasidic celebrities.” I’m probably a D-lister (on a good day). One of my best-selling books is about the Jewish influences on the creation of classic comic book superheroes. Over the years I’ve received numerous e-mails from overly enthusiastic readers eager to share their “deep” theories about the “spirituality of Superman” and such. It’s flattering, but also disconcerting. I wanted the book to inspire readers to go on to further explore Jewish philosophy, not obsess about comic books. I’ve started writing back, “I think it’s time to turn off the laptop …”

I’m grateful for celebrities who choose to observe Jewish tradition in the public eye. We can salute them and admire them, as long as we never forget that they are people, not prophets. To treat them otherwise is unfair to them and us. In the wise words of Monty Python, Matisyhau is “not the Messiah.”

It’s going to be a cold winter, especially if you don’t have a lush beard anymore to warm you. Let’s let the lights of the Chanukah candles warm our faces—bearded or not—and look up to a real hero: Matisyahu the Maccabee.

In the meantime, like facial hair on a beardless face, “we all have room to grow.”

Rabbi Simcha Weinstein is a best-selling author who recently was voted “New York’s Hippest Rabbi” by PBS-Ch. 13. His forthcoming book on demography is titled “The Case for Having Kids: Why parenthood makes you (and your world) healthy, wealthy and wise.”

Bigger than the beard, Matisyahu move marks ongoing spiritual journey

The world’s most famous Chasidic Jew has shaved his beard.

With a declaration Tuesday morning that he was “reclaiming” himself, Jewish music star Matisyahu—a.k.a. Matthew Miller—shaved his signature beard and wrote, “No more Chassidic reggae superstar.”

The musician posted two photos of his newly beardless face to the social networking site Twitter and added an explanation on his website a few hours later.

“When I started becoming religious 10 years ago it was a very natural and organic process,” he wrote. “I felt that in order to become a good person I needed rules—lots of them—or else I would somehow fall apart. I am reclaiming myself.”
Matisyahu’s religious journey has long been an object of speculation and media fascination. Raised in a Reconstructionist family in White Plains, N.Y., he became affiliated with the Chabad movement only in 2000, after studying at one of its institutions in Israel.

Four years later, after his debut album “Shake Off the Dust… Arise” was released by JDub Records, Matisyahu began a rise that ultimately would find him performing on national television as well as at Jewish events.

Here was a beat-boxing Chasid borrowing lyrics from Jewish liturgy on television while wearing the black fedora and long black coat typical of members of the Chabad sect. Matisyahu represented a major step forward in the visibility of traditional Judaism in the mainstream media.

Chasidic Judaism was always central his public persona. While on tour, promoters made special arrangements to accommodate Matisyahu’s Sabbath observance.

As recently as last weekend, Matisyahu’s status as a Chasidic cultural icon was on full display. An episode of the Bravo channel’s “Chef Roble & Co.” focused on a kosher Thai Vegan party held at the musician’s home. The episode explored the intricacies of rules governing the preparation of kosher meals.

But Matisyahu’s spiritual exploration didn’t end with his rise to public attention. In 2007, he distanced himself the Chabad movement, a move that sparked another round of news stories.

“My initial ties were through the Lubavitch sect… At this point, I don’t necessarily identify with it any more,” Matisyahu told the Miami New Times in 2007. “I’m really religious, but the more I’m learning about other types of Jews, I don’t want to exclude myself.”

“Matisyahu was never a part of the movement’s conventional line,” a senior Chabad official told Haaretz later that year. “It’s possible that he felt that his membership in Chabad caused him to be scrutinized.”

Matisyahu went on to explore other schools of Chasidism—including Karlin-Stoliners, a Chasidic group known for praying at full volume. It wasn’t a matter of rejecting Chabad, the singer told JTA in 2008, but rather “not feeling bound to one way or one path, but open to many paths within Judaism.”

The singer’s latest statement isn’t definitive. It doesn’t rule out belonging to Judaism or even a Chasidic movement. At most, the statement seems to indicate another stage of spiritual exploration.

“Get ready for an amazing year filled with music of rebirth,” Matisyahu says in his statement. “And for those concerned with my naked face, don’t worry … you haven’t seen the last of my facial hair.”

Bearded rabbi allowed to join army without shaving

A bearded Chabad rabbi has won his battle to join the U.S. Army without shaving his beard.

Rabbi Menachem Stern, whose approval to serve as an Army Reserve chaplain in 2009 was rescinded because he refused to shave his beard, will be allowed to serve after settling a lawsuit against the military, Chabad-Lubavitch News reported. Stern expects to be sworn into service next week and begin chaplain training in January.

Though army policy does allow religious waivers for beards on a case-by-case, the waivers had previously been granted only after the men entered the service clean-shaven.

In December, Stern filed a lawsuit against the military after attempts—aided by Senators Joe Lieberman, Charles Schumer and Kristen Gillibrand—to receive a waiver failed.

According to the Aleph Institute, a Chabad organization that assists Jewish military personnel, there are currently 37 Jewish chaplains in the U.S. military, including nine rabbis on active duty.

The Aleph Institute will be live streaming Stern’s swearing in ceremony on Dec. 9.

Court rejects lawsuit challenging prison beard policy

A federal appeals court upheld the legality of a New Hampshire prison policy limiting the length of prisoners’ beard.

The 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled July 14 against an Orthodox Jewish former inmate who had challenged the policy.

The New Hampshire state prison system requires inmates to be clean shaven unless they obtain a waiver to maintain beards for religious or medical reasons. Prisoners who receive a waiver are allowed to grow only a quarter-inch of facial hair.

Albert Kuperman, an Orthodox Jew who had been a prisoner in a New Hampshire state prison, had filed a lawsuit challenging the policy limiting his beard’s length. He argued that the policy violated his rights to practice his religion under the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause, the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

The court said that prison officials had demonstrated that their policy on facial hair is related to their legitimate interest in maintaining security.

A federal district also had ruled agaisnt Kuperman, who completed his sentence while his appeal was pending.

Gillibrand presses Army on beard policy

U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand urged the Army to modify a regulation banning facial hair in order to allow rabbis to serve as chaplains.

“It is my understanding that a review of this policy is currently under way at the Department of Defense,” Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) wrote recently to Army Secretary John McHugh. “I write to strongly urge that while this review is ongoing, the Army grant waivers of this policy to prospective chaplains who are otherwise fully qualified to serve.”

In December, Rabbi Menachem Stern sued the U.S. Army, saying it refused his services as a chaplain because he would not shave his beard. Gillibrand and other senators had taken up Stern’s case last August.

“Since writing to you last August about the case of Rabbi Menachem M. Stern, I have become aware of other instances where qualified chaplains have been told by their superiors that they cannot display facial hair while serving in the Army,” Gillibrand said in her letter. “This discriminatory practice forces rabbis and other members of the clergy to choose between their deeply held religious beliefs and their desire to serve their country in the Armed Forces.”

Rabbi sues Army over beard ban

A rabbi is suing the U.S. Army, saying it refused his services as a chaplain because he would not shave his beard.

Rabbi Menachem Stern filed suit in the U.S. District Court in Washington on Wednesday, his law firm, Lewin and Lewin, said in a news release.

Stern claims the Army rejected his application to serve as a chaplain only because he would not shave his beard as a matter of conscience.

According to the complaint, Stern informed the Army in his application to serve as a chaplain that he would not shave or cut his beard in keeping with his Orthodox Jewish practice. Stern is a member of the Chabad-Lubavitch community, according to The Washington Post.

Stern was approved to serve as a chaplain in June 2009 and appointed as a reserve commissioned officer before his appointment was rescinded three months later “because of the military regulation prohibiting the wearing of beards.”

Nathan Lewin, Stern’s lead counsel, noted that the Army has waived restrictions for Muslims and Sikhs, and that he had litigated the same issue in 1976 on behalf of another chaplain, Mitchell Geller—and won.

Lewin also said the ban violated constitutional protections as well as law passed during the Clinton administration that protects some forms of religious expression in the workplace.

Stern’s case has been championed by Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.)